Students and global health experts share their experiences working with communities.

Category: Katerina

When Everything Goes Digital

In March, my practicum in Zambia was moved to an online format. I was frustrated and disappointed because I had been so eager to go physically see oncological care in Sub-Saharan Africa. What I didn’t expect was to gain practical skills during such a hands-off internship. This summer I developed a digital dashboard system for a multidisciplinary team that had just transitioned to a virtual format as well. I was originally very frustrated with the world when my plans got altered to start remote work, instead of traveling, but I realized I was not the only one that was adjusting. To make their efforts more efficient in their new virtual state, and to address historical need for technology, I was employed to introduce a new way of communicating between the team, allowing them to share information at a moment’s notice. I soon realized that the whole world would be having to learn this, and use these skills for a bit longer than anticipated.

Through my efforts of developing the digital data management system, I have researched eHealth systems around the world, and I have seen how low and middle-income countries are focused on developing eHealth strategy documents. The purpose of these is to outline the need for building technological capacity and supporting tech education. It is a public statement to the world and the people that the country intends to step into the technological world. Recently Zambia started benefiting from a new undersea high speed internet cable that has now given the internet to millions of people. Much of the population is still rural, but the new connective cable allows Zambia to join countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe that are also connected.

A practicum like mine would not have been possible even a decade ago because of lack of internet, and the whole prospect of shifting the multidisciplinary team to virtual meetings would not have been possible without the development of software like Zoom that has become so prevalent during the pandemic. COVID-19 is waking the world up to the functional uses of the internet in professional settings. All those meetings that could have been emails are now emails, or virtual meetings. I wonder if the in-person meetings, or offices, will make a full recovery. Now looking for employment at the start of the Fall semester, many if not all opportunities are advertised as remote for the foreseeable future, and will probably transition to that mode from now on. Over the past three months, I have learned many things about the virtual world, but the most important, is that it is here to stay.


When Global Has to Be Local

In March, I signed an offer letter for a practicum position in Zambia, hoping to fulfill my bucket list item of moving to Africa. The day after I signed that letter, the announcement came that international travel would be prohibited for the summer of 2020. My goal is to attend medical school after earning my MPHand to then focus on surgery/oncology, so the position tending to women with gynecological malignancies at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Lusaka was the perfect fit. I was anticipating a personalized internship in which I could follow patients throughout their treatment process, and work on the multidisciplinary team to implement an online dashboard system to better track patient progress. I am now doing all of this…from the comfort of my living room. The issue is, I didn’t want comfort. I decided to get my MPH at UNC specifically for the hands on practicum experience, but the world had other plans.

Throughout this process I am learning that the interconnectivity of the world due to globalization and technology allows global work to happen locally. It is quite amazing how a girl in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the USA can be reporting the status of a patient about 8,000 miles away. These circumstances make me wonder about the future of global health, though. Will we be more inclined to take a comfortable seat in our living room directing the work of others across the globe? I believe there is inherent value in traveling to the locations and communities you mean to serve. It is necessary to do so to learn their genuine wants and needs instead of being holed up in the American South telling them what they should want and need. I believe this is an attribute of being a global citizen, one whose care is not restrained by national borders. It is my hope that this pandemic shows us how interdependent many countries are, especially with regards to public health and disease.

Through my work for the Zambian hospitals thus far, I have seen an example of a team of doctors who have a goal of following through, not letting patients slip through the cracks, efficiency, and executing quality medical care. It has impacted my career path because I am now affirmed that the job I have dreamed of since I was 16 is a reality. I plan to travel underserved communities to serve global populations by setting up a sustainable, efficient infrastructure and system of care. I am still grateful for the opportunities UNC has afforded me, even if they are remote.